The CANs and the CAN-Nots

Since so many people have asked about our experience with the Cooperative Auto Network (CAN), I figured I’d post a few of the positive and negatives we’ve encountered through our nearly 3-year membership.

This one’s a doozie, so if you’re not really interested in how CAN works for car-sharing, you may want to skip this installment.

First, the Upsides

Save-on-Driving. Our average CAN bill ran about $200/month (up to $350 in the winter when we drove further distances and stayed out longer, and as low as $50 in the summer when we only took a short trip or two). That includes gas, maintenance, insurance and BCAA membership. The maintenance part was a big selling-point for me, because I was still sore about selling my lemon for the cost of repairs to the transmission that had just failed. It felt amazingly liberating to no longer worry about being hit with a huge, unexpected repair bill.

Pick a car, any car. Living in Kitsilano (one of the most densely CAN car-populated areas), there are vehicles available within two blocks of our home in any direction. A Crossover/SUV, a station wagon, a 4-door coupe and a pick-up truck. There’s also a minivan a couple blocks past that. And the 4-door has snow tires. We’ve used all of them for different reasons. It actually helped us narrow down our own car choices for when we started looking (small station-wagons work really well for us).

Saving the planet, one (less) trip at a time. Having that small barrier between wanting to drive somewhere and making the trip happen (booking the car, getting to the car) meant we had to think about every drive we took and determine whether the trip is worth it. Often we realized it was something we could accomplish on foot, bike or bus. And if timing was one of the issues (short time to accomplish a task that meant other transport isn’t an option) we often found that we could put off the “unnecessary” trip until we had more time to run the errand, and made due with other things.

But of course, with great savings and convenience comes great compromise. Which brings us to…

The Downsides

These may not be what you think, since we were well prepared for the inconveniences of not being able to have a car exactly when or where we want it. We were also willing to accept the inevitability of having to deal with other people’s life snafus and be inconvenienced by the occasional late car, lost keys, messy vehicle or empty gas tank.

I wasn’t prepared, however, to deal with the way I experienced the “shiny, happy co-op” is run. Two specific instances leap to mind:

Ill Communication. CAN occasionally sends out newsletters to the membership, and gives off an impression that they want their members to get involved with helping to make the co-op better for everyone. Occasionally I have sent communications offering to volunteer in capacities I’m proficient in, or offer some feedback on how the co-op could be awesome and improve things for all members with tiny changes. I have never received a response. Not even a “thank you for your message.” Speaking to other friends who are members and have tried to communicate with the borg, they get the same reply (read: none).

Shame on You! This is not to say that the CAN offices are incapable of communicating, because they certainly are good at calling people out on the tiniest infractions. When one is a member of a co-operative, I was under the (apparently misguided) impression that the objective is to be co-operative. This means that when I get to a car that has some trash in it, I throw it out. When the gas tank isn’t left at half-full (one of the code-of-conduct guidelines), I just fill it (not like it comes out of my pocket, remember, gas is included in the usage fees). If someone is a couple minutes late, I have patience, and if I’m going to be late, I call the co-op offices so they can inform the next member I’m on my way.

I think the only way a co-op can function productively is if everyone tries their best, and holds the belief that everyone else is trying his/her best. Yes, sometimes shit happens, but patience and understanding, rather than tattle-taleing and beratement are going to go a lot further in making the community work.

Unfortunately, not all members think that way, and the CAN office staff seem to be in the latter camp as well. I will fully admit to having committed every infraction above on occasion (because shit happens) and every time I did, I would get a nasty (and vaguely threatening) phone call from the office telling me what a bad community member I was.

And it’s not like we did these things often. We got no more than half-a-dozen phone calls over our 3 year membership. It’s just that CAN staff call to relay the complaint on each and every instance, with no verification or filter. I could complain about every car I got into, and the previous drivers like would’ve received the same troubling messages. But what point does it serve?

The final straw on that one for me was when we were walking to a car and our dog (admittedly off-leash) got in the way of a cyclist, who had to slow down, and wobbled a bit getting around her. Sorry, our bad, and our bad dog was leashed immediately afterward. We apologized and continued on our way. The cyclist stopped up ahead and gave us the stink-eye for a while, but we didn’t think much of it, got in the car and drove off.

About 30 minutes later, we got a very nasty phone call from the CAN office, shaming us for getting in the car with a wet (false), muddy (false) dog with no blanket on the seat (true). The angry cyclist had waited for us to leave, and phoned up CAN to lie about us, and the CAN staff took his word as complete truth! What angry cyclist wasn’t privy to was us vacuuming out the car after we used it (which we do often, having a hairy dog and all).

I can understand that there will be problem users who regularly leave the car in a terrible state, or otherwise violate the code of conduct for CAN members, and there will be problem members who have zero tolerance or are malicious to other members. Staff can and should make complaint notes on individual users (and complainers) files when “infractions” (whether real or imagined) are reported. Patterns of abuse should be reported.

But considering we have never before or since been called out for leaving dog debris in the car behind us (cleaning up the hair & dirt is something we’re really pro-active on), I was (and am still) quite angry about their process. I told them so on that phone call, and suggested they update the way they process complaints instead of insulting the membership that keeps them running. I was summarily brushed off and told “we don’t care how you leave the car (huh?), you broke a rule!” Nice.

The Snowmageddon Incident. It was a few days after Christmas, the main roads were clear (though side-streets were still a mess), the city had been at a stand-still for over a week and we were desperately trying to get in one family visit before the holidays ended. We tried to book a car.

Unfortunately, with the state of the side streets (where all the co-op cars live) it was nearly impossible to park or move cars of any sort. Some cars were in worse predicaments than others, with a few being immovable, period, and others being out and about (though in the wrong spots sometimes).

This would have been a perfect opportunity for CAN to use the power of their community to make life a little better for the entire membership! Instead, they managed to further alienate this member (and I’m assuming I’m not alone).

We booked Car A, which was supposed to be available. After suiting up in snow gear and tromping out to Car A, then walking a full block in every direction from its designated spot (as per the CAN suggestions), Car A was nowhere to be found. We called CAN and told them as much. They said “look harder.” We did. We never found Car A.

We phoned back and told them as much, and the person on the phone heaved a frustrated sigh and said they’d book us a different car. When they told us what was available, we picked Car B. We booked Car B and went to its location. Car B lives behind a neighbourhood house – to get into the parking lot one needs to drive down a narrow 30 foot alley and into a small lot. That alley and lot hadn’t been shoveled since the first snowfall, and Car B wasn’t going anywhere without at least 5 hours of labour and perhaps a bobcat.

We called CAN back again and explained that Car B couldn’t be moved, is anything else available?

I was then schooled on the policies of CAN that if I canceled this car I would be charged the cancellation rate (over 100% of the hourly rate). It’s up to the members to carry a shovel and one books cars at his/her own risk. And what were we doing driving in this weather anyhow? (Remember, all the main roads were totally clear and people were driving all over the place, we just had to get through 3 blocks of shady side-streets).

We paid the cancellation, finally got into Car C after a bit of digging with a borrowed shovel (at least it was on a road, not in a lot) and got on our way. So we were treated poorly by CAN office staff twice on the phone because of their own lack of record-keeping (again, why not mark that car buried in a parking lot as unavailable until confirmation that it’s dug out?), spent 2 hours roaming around in the snow and paid essentially double for the use of one car.

CAN has the ability and technology to make notes on user and car accounts. And they didn’t add notes to either of those to try to facilitate the moving and use of cars that were available. Who knows, perhaps car users in a certain area would’ve even been willing to have a “digging out” party for some of the trapped cars – I’d be interested in volunteering my time for that (actually, I tried after CAN told me it was my responsibility as a member who decides they have to drive in the winter to have a shovel, I couldn’t buy one anywhere in the city).

Those are the two biggest incidents I’ve had with the office staff at CAN. There have been dozens of other little encounters here and there that registered on the “annoying” meter, and of course some perfectly pleasant encounters as well. However, the pleasant ones have been the exception, rather than the rule.

So in addition to being made to feel like a criminal when life gets away from me sometimes, and knowing that the CAN administration is going to not just “not bring members together” but actively contribute to making life difficult when something happens that affects the membership as a whole – well, it makes it pretty easy to drop them like a hot potato when you consider….

The Uncomfortable-sides

Tick Tock. CAN works like a hot damn when you need to use a car. And by that I mean the car is actively involved in what you’re doing. Hauling people or things. Running errands with a CAN car is fully awesome. It feels like it makes less sense to use a CAN car just as transportation, where it sits for hours (or days).

My parents live in Maple Ridge. To get there on public transit on a weekend would be a 2.5 hour journey (one way), on which we can’t bring the dog. Driving takes about an hour. But of course we don’t just drive there, turn around, and drive back. So the CAN car sits, parked outside their house for a number of hours. We try to tack some errands onto either end of the trip, so we’re being more efficient with our car use, but it feels wrong to book a car for a whole day just to have it sitting, unused, most of that time.

Same goes for hiking in the summer and skiing days in the winter, with the added inconvenience of needing to book at least a few days ahead for a full-day’s use. It’s awfully disappointing to be psyched about an adventure to have it foiled by the weather, and have a car all day to pay for. Same with an unexpected great weather day, and the inability to go further than our own feet can take us (good weather adventures always include the dog) because the cars are all booked. We have no qualms about renting a car for multi-day trips, it’s just those full-day outings that somehow feel like the wrong use for a CAN car (when we can get a car for the day).

Translink FAIL. And then of course there’s the fact that I just can not efficiently get where I need to go right now on transit. CAN was great while I was working downtown and had a 20-minute bus or bike commute, flexibility to telecommute whenever I felt the need, and no extracurriculars further than a few minutes walk or bus from work or home. Now my work schedule is much less flexible, my transit commute is a full hour on a good day, existing extracurriculars are still downtown (where I don’t work anymore) and we’ve joined a sports team that plays in fields all across the city.

If there were efficient transit options to the particular area of Richmond I work in, it might be a different story. But I’m in a business park a 40-minute walk from the 98 B-Line (or new skytrain line), serviced by one, terrible bus that doesn’t show up with any regularity (#410 I’m looking at you!). My choices are to take transit and deal with 3-hours of commuting every day, and have to stop doing anything else on weekdays (good bye professional & social events, and ultimate team) or get a car and drive 40 minutes a day total, throwing in a few days biking to work a week (80 minute round trip) on days where I don’t have anywhere to be immediately after work.

CAN was awesome for us while our lifestyle supported it (very short, efficient transit commutes) though its usefulness was already running its course. We longed for the freedom to have some spontaneous new adventures, with the dog, which just wasn’t possible with CAN. That alone wasn’t enough to justify going back to car-ownership, but when our planet-saving & community-building efforts resulted in being treated like dirt, it made it a lot harder to feel particularly fondly about the organization we were supporting (ZipCar would always be just as expensive as owning a car for us, so we never considered it an option).

After the “angry biker” and “snowmageddon” incidents, we had already been thinking about time frames for buying a car. My change in employment situation and the great deal on a car that worked for us sealed the deal.

Hopefully that gives everyone a pretty good picture of what we experienced with CAN. As I said, it was pretty great for a while, but for us it had a very limited lifecycle of utility. It has made is think more about where and how often we drive though, and I think everyone can benefit from going car-free more often than we (as a population) currently do.

Those three years were years that we felt we had a viable option for transportation outside of owning a car, or having no access to a vehicle at all, and for that I’m really, really grateful. If I still feel positive enough about CAN, even now, to leave our shares in the organization in case we’d like to use a bigger car, van, or truck someday, imagine how much more successful they could be if they started treating their members as valuable assets rather than annoyances.

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12 thoughts on “The CANs and the CAN-Nots

  1. Chris

    Great post. I’ve never experienced any of the negative things that you mention, but then again you were a far, far heavier user than I was.

    Chris’s last blog post..April Wrapup

  2. Darren

    We’ve giving the Victoria version a try. Thus far, the car we booked was unavailable in one out of the five times we’ve used the service. If that becomes 1 out of 50, I’ll have no complaints. If it’s 1 out of 10, that’s not good.

    My only other impression: there are a crapload of fines for all of the different ways one can screw up.

    For longer periods of time, we just rent a car from Budget or the like. They’ve become incredibly cheap (I recently paid $40 for a 24-hour period), and it still nets out to much cheaper than owning a car.

    Darren’s last blog post..No Thorobaaads or Dumpies

  3. Bernadette Amiscaray

    Hi Jen,

    Just wanted to drop a line saying first things first, thanks very much for writing about The Car Co-op on your blog. It sounds as though for the most part, car sharing worked well for you in terms of getting you where you needed to go at the fraction of the financial and environmental cost of individually owning a car. This deserves a “yay!”

    I am, however, terribly sorry to hear that you’ve had some negative experiences with us. These are important issues you’ve brought up. Over the past three months we’ve gone to our members in the form of focus groups (a first in Car Co-op history) to examine our service and find out what we could be doing better. Because of this, we’ve developed and are implementing more rigorous systems for cleaning and maintaining our cars, for example. We’ll also be announcing a new, simpler, pricing structure on Friday.

    As part of the process of improving our business, we’re also looking at how we can provide better member care. You’ve highlighted what you feel needs attention and I can reassure you that your comments haven’t fallen on deaf ears. Our goal, ultimately, is to continue to grow and get more people in Metro Vancouver to give up their car(s) and share cars with us instead. The points you’ve raised, that push us to improve our customer service, will definitely help us get there.

    Please feel free to email me if you have any concerns or comments. I invite any of your other readers who may be Co-op members/drivers to do the same.

    Kind regards,
    Bernadette Amiscaray
    Communications and Marketing Manager
    Co-operative Auto Network
    #205-470 Granville Street
    Vancouver, BC V6C 1V5
    604-685-1395 (Direct)

  4. peechie Post author

    Hi Bernadette – I’m so glad you replied! I’m awfully pleased that there are things underway to keep improving CAN and keep it the first, best option for Vancouverites to share cars.

    I’m looking forward to seeing updates in the member communications on how things are going. And as I said, I wish car-sharing (from an “I need to get to work” point of view) still worked for us, because for the most part, it was really quite good!

  5. peechie Post author

    @col I have no idea of the level of service ZipCar provides – I find the cost of their program so much higher than CAN that I don’t think customer-service alone could win me over. However, I did just hear from another ZipCar user today that when the snow fell, ZipCar tagged all their snowed-in cars, to make things easier on Zip-drivers. I still don’t know why CAN didn’t do the same.

  6. Anne

    We have a corporate membership at Zipcar, so the rates will be slightly different from personal, however the experience has been great. When any of my staff need to travel to a customer site, they book a car the day before and off they go. Corporate has an all-day rate that works for us, so the fact that the car sits unused most of the day isn’t a financial disincentive.
    We’ve had one collision incident that was well dealt with and I’ve had no complaints from Zipcar about any of my drivers (and I’m the corporate contact, so I’m sure I’d hear!). Zipcar has lots of cars downtown and as far east as Commercial Drive area, so if you live any further east then it won’t be convenient for you to pick up a car.

  7. Beth

    Thanks for sharing that! Like Chris, I’ve not been as heavy a user as you and haven’t experienced any problems. I think that may also be due, somewhat counter-intuitively, to the fact that I live in an area that doesn’t have many co-op cars. The closest car to me is 10 blocks away (there’s a minivan 1 block away but, eww, it’s a minivan!). So, although I have fewer cars to chose from than you, I also have less competition for those cars (they don’t have many cars in my ‘hood because they don’t have many members here). So I don’t seem to run into other users being late with the car, or if I’m running late whenever I’ve called to extend my time there’s never been a user right after me, so it’s not been a problem. The main issue I’ve had with the co-op is that there website needs re-vamping – it’s not very easy to find the info you want.

    I’m also interested in hearing about this new simpler pricing structure that Bernadette mentioned – everytime I try to explain to people how much it costs, the complicated structure turns people off because they can’t figure out how much it will cost!

    Beth’s last blog post..Looking Forward, Looking Back

  8. Christina

    It makes WAY more sense to include shovels in the cars that are going to be parked off main streets. But I like your option better — snow digging party. Smart idea!

    Much like getting credit for filling the tank and vacuuming the car, you should get some points for digging out a car. Might be tougher to track accurately but worth exploring.

    Nice to see CAN reply to this post and assure you of change.

  9. Tod

    This is a great review.

    Just as an aside, I read Bernadette’s last name wrong when my eyes first glanced over it. It looks like “Am-scray!”

    I was part of the focus groups she mentioned, and I have to say that there does seem to be a much stronger focus on, and desire to improve, the members’ experience. They have a new Exec Director (CEO? President?) who we met and he seemed like a very good guy — listening, asking the right questions, etc.

    Tod’s last blog post..The dilemma

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